The delicious-tasting, 10-ton steller sea cows were hunted to extinction 200 years ago. But it may not yet be too late for the smaller, West Indian manatee sea cow, although it is considered one of the most critically endangered of marine mammals. And there is still hope for a rare, gangling grass that could be crossbred to improve corn.
Worldwide, one-to-three species of animal and plant life vanish daily. As man clears more tropical forests and other natural areas, this rate could reach one per hour in 10 years.
But set against this recent gloomy outlook by the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is the beginning of a worldwide effort to slow the extinction rate.
"No," there has not been much progress in slowing the "escalating" extinction rate of plants and animals, says Bill Long, director of food and natural resources for the US State Department. But the past several years have seen "elevated awareness [and] a few success stories," he says.
Brazil and a number of African nations are increasing the number of their national parks in areas deemed critical to the survival of many species.
As for the manatee, radical measures now are being taken to safeguard it in Florida, where only about 1,000 of its number remain. One manatee refuge was upgraded to "emergency protection area" status last year.
Several recent reports, including the State Department's follow-up to the federal government's Global 2000 study, urge greater US and international efforts to save species by protecting critical habitats. But US action on such proposals is on hold, awaiting "signals" from the Reagan administration, Mr. Long says.
Little is known about most of the disappearing species, many of them insects in tropical forests. But each plays a role in keeping other species alive. Insects pollenate trees in tropical forests, for example. And many plants and animals have important potential as food or clothing, environmental specialists say.
"We don't know how the disappearance of these species will affect us," says Elliott Norse, a CEQ ecologist.
The steller sea cow, which once swam near what is now Alaska's Aleutian Islands, today might have been a good food source.
And the fairly recent discovery of an extremely rare tall grass in northern Mexico that is related to corn could, through crossbreeding, lead to a perennial corn, says Thomas Lovejoy of the World Wildlife Fund. Savings in replanting costs would be substantial, he says. The Mexican government intends to protect the tiny areas where the grass is found, areas that were being developed.
Indications that US foreign aid may be cut worry some State Department officials because most countries lack funds and trained personnel to protect vanishing species.
One State Department official says there is a little- recognized relationship between saving plant and animal life and national security: making greater use of food and other uses of yet largely untapped species can boost a poor nation's economy and stability.
There are an estimated 5 million to 10 million species of animals and plants in the world today, of which the CEQ estimates 15 to 20 percent may vanish by the year 2000. Many of them are in the forests of South America, Africa, and Asia -- areas being developed at increasing rates.
Often, says CEQ biologist Roger McManus, only slight relocation of development projects can save areas rich in plant and animal life.